by Matthew Balz
Hardcore Henry is exactly what you’d expect from Ilya Naishuller, the creator of Biting Elbows: Bad Motherfucker and Payday 2. In 2013, Naishuller directed these two music videos for his band, Biting Elbows, and the resulting onslaught of 1st person perspective action and stunts flew across the internet at viral speed. Together with producer/director Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Wanted) they adapted this storytelling method into a feature film that enhances the overall technique and allowed room to grow a thin plotline that follows an amnesiac cyborg/human resurrected from death who is tasked with rescuing his wife from a mysterious villain toting telekinetic powers.
To create this film effectively, the crew had to develop a whole new camera mount for a GoPro system wherein the equipment itself is strapped to the actor/stuntman’s head, allowing him to scale walls and fight in hand-to-hand combat. The main concern with this film, before even walking into a theatre, are the downsides of extending such a technique into feature length span of time. The frenetic camera work on display during action sequences is almost a guarantee that not every movie-goer will catch the images intended to be seen. This may be the biggest downside of using 1st Person POV for a long duration (aside from the parade of potentially illness-inducing camera movements). The result is a lack of direction and destination, both visually and thematically. However, this innovate viewpoint serves great benefits to the film, allowing angles and action sequences never before experienced in movies.
In addition to the 1st Person POV, this film makes jovial allusions and tongue-in-cheek references to video game format and gameplay. When Sharlto Copley’s character of Jimmy makes his numerous appearances, it is revealed he has a number of “avatars” whom he can embody at will, giving him a number of expendable characters, all of which contribute their guidance and combat support – in perfect similarity with video game logic. Copley plays each and every part, ranging from a Mohawk-toting punk to a UK military Colonel, at one point after a firefight even referring to his doppelganger as he states, “we don’t need the Sniper anymore.” The array of characters allude to video game atmosphere, but also give Copley a great playground to toy with his own performances. The script allows each laughably colorful character his own sizeable opportunity for comedy, something that comes so fluidly to this film’s perpetually unstoppable pace.
The movie jumps recklessly around between set pieces, plot development, comedic breaks, and stunt montages in the hasty ambition to gut every action film cliché and reassemble it with visual glory. With the great potential that the camera style serves, it’s a terrible shame that this film permits both video game AND movie clichés so prevalently and in such abundance. In order to extend this movie’s ground of coverage, exposition and “missions” are tossed throughout each corner of the scene like patchwork to fill gaping holes between gratuitous fights.
Despite the creativity behind real-time action and stunt-work, any digital effects and CGI on display here only disengage the viewer from these sequences. Sometimes as violently as their explosive effect.
Henry, the character, feels more iconic than the film he’s implanted in. There’s a sympathetic individual who both mindlessly hunts unnamed men with vengeance but also has the humanity to rescue civilians in imminent danger. Imbued with tattoos, a witty sense of humor, and no voice of his own, Henry is a flexible character who warrants more examination and exploitation.
Hardcore Henry is worth a viewing for the visual and action terrain it explores. Despite, the split-second speed with which this film churns through sequences, every euphoric throw of the fist has the potential to win over an audience, and when Hardcore Henry made the decision for quantity over quality, that’s its exact strength. There’s hope that a creative newcomer like Ilya Naishuller could produce a stepping stone for an industry typically caught in the rut of recycling worn techniques, but whether this exercise in in violence and perspective will make an impact can only be determined through time.